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March 31, 2004

TT: Finishing the book

The last time I finished writing a book (as opposed to editing a collection, which feels much less eventful) was on September 4, 2001. I'd actually typed the final words of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken years earlier--I wrote the prologue and epilogue first--and I'd completed the next-to-last draft of the book in late August, but it was on the afternoon of September 4 that I finished editing the last draft and started printing out the manuscript. I didn't open a bottle of champagne or go out to dinner: instead, I spent the evening alone and went to bed early. I'd been working under extreme pressure all summer, and now, at last, the heat was off. I delivered the manuscript to my agent the next day and caught a plane to Missouri to visit my mother the day after that.

I was expecting to feel a touch of post-partum depression sooner or later, as most writers do when they finish writing a long book. Then, five days later, my mother's phone rang and a caller from the Upper West Side told me to turn on the TV. That was the last time I thought about Mencken, or my book, for the next few weeks.

All these memories came flooding back as I sat at my desk two nights ago and printed out the seven chapters of All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine. Unlike The Skeptic, a full-length biography which took me the better part of a decade to research, ponder, and write, All in the Dances is a short biography, about 40,000 words long, and I spent just three months writing it, not counting four or five false starts as I tried unsuccessfully to get the first chapter going. I was still thinking in terms of a full-length book, one that would start with a lengthy set piece describing the making of Serenade, the first ballet Balanchine choreographed after coming to America. That had been my plan more or less from the time I decided to write a book about Balanchine, but it didn't work. Not until I replaced it with a shorter description of the night I saw my first Balanchine ballet (part of which is in this posting) did the logjam break, and after that the rest was easy. If I hadn't had so many other pieces to write in February and March, I probably could have wrapped the whole thing up in a month.

As the subtitle says, All in the Dances is a "brief life," a biography short enough to be read in one or two sittings. I like brief lives (even The Skeptic is a good deal shorter than most full-length biographies), and I'd thought a lot about the form before deciding to write one of my own. A couple of years ago I reviewed Paul Johnson's brief life of Napoleon, a volume in the Penguin Lives series, and made the following observations:

The premise of these tasty little volumes is that it ought to be possible to sum up the life of a famous person in 200 pages or less. Seeing as how Johnson specializes in really, really long books, I wondered at first whether he was the best choice for the job, but within a few pages I knew that Napoleon is a near-perfect model of what a brief life can and should be: crisp, clear, concise and strongly personal.

In order to write a good short biography, you have to start with an unambiguous point of view....

All in the Dances has one: I believe that George Balanchine, in addition to being the greatest choreographer of the twentieth century, was also a key figure in the modern movement in art, directly comparable in significance to Henri Matisse or Igor Stravinsky, even though he isn't widely recognized as such outside the world of dance. This premise flavors the whole of my book in a way that would be inappropriately reductive in, say, an 800-page biography. It also makes possible a kind of overarching unity that isn't easy to create in a longer book. When you're writing 40,000 words about a man who lived to the age of seventy-nine, you have to be selective, and thus interpretative.

It didn't surprise me that I had to leave so many things out. What surprised me was how much I was able to put in, and how many of the techniques I used in writing The Skeptic were equally useful in writing All in the Dances. Both books are built around scenes and portraits, though most of the "scenes" in All in the Dances deal not with events in Balanchine's life but with the premieres of the Balanchine ballets I singled out for description and criticism. Conversely, I used the portraits--of Serge Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Lincoln Kirstein, Jerome Robbins, Tanaquil Le Clercq, and Suzanne Farrell, the six most important people in Balanchine's life--to keep the narrative moving forward.

If you've read The Skeptic, you'll recall that it's structured in a similar way, but that didn't hit me until I looked over the last draft of All in the Dances. Up to that moment, I'd felt as if I were writing a brief life in the style of a full-length biography. Now I'm more inclined to see The Skeptic as a brief life writ large--an interpretative portrait of Mencken, not a first-he-did-this-then-he-did-that chronicle. The big difference is that it's a lot easier to control the material when you're writing a brief life: you can hold the whole book in your head at once and give it a consistency of tone that's much more difficult to impose on a longer biography. I line-edited the entire manuscript of All in the Dances in a continuous ten-hour session, stopping only to eat two quick meals. You definitely can't do that with a hundred-thousand-word book, though I did my very best to give The Skeptic a similar feeling of unity and sweep.

Another thing that surprised me was that there was room for a certain amount of poetry within the compass of a 40,000-word book. Even though I wrote All in the Dances out of sequence, I saved Balanchine's death for last, just as I had Mencken's, and it wasn't until I actually started writing the death scene that I figured out what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. This is what I wrote, late Sunday afternoon:

His memory had been fading for weeks, and now he was losing the power of speech as well. "I would just sit on the bed," wrote Farrell, "holding his hand while he slept, but as soon as I rose to go, his hand would grip mine more tightly." Karin von Aroldingen saw him most often, but most of the many women he had loved made the pilgrimage to his bedside. Tamara Geva was the last. "One day I found him clutching a small icon in the palm of his hand," she said. "He brought it to my face and repeated several times, ‘Must believe...must believe...' and closed his eyes. With every hour he seemed to grow farther away into the distance, like a shrinking shadow." All his life he had had the faith of a child. Now it was all he had left.

Balanchine's ballets, early and late, are full of unsettling images of loss. Serenade ends with a processional in which a woman left alone by the hand of fate is carried to her own destiny. In Liebeslieder Walzer, a woman appears to die in the arms of her partner; in La Valse, the partner is death. Even Apollo's triumphant ascent to Olympus was also a farewell to earth. That, too, was part of his vision. He took for granted that earthly love must end in separation. Like the inescapable evanescence of choreography, loss was part of the cycle of life: "Choreography is like cooking or gardening. Not like painting, because painting stays. Dancing disintegrates. Like a garden. Lots of roses come up, and in the evening they're gone. Next day, the sun comes up. It's life. I'm connected to what is part of life." Only a fool, he knew, sought to prevent the inevitable.

In 1976, he added a coda to "Emeralds," a pas de sept in which the principal dancers of the ballet enact the stately sorrow of the incidental music Gabriel Fauré composed to accompany the death of Mélisande in Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande. At the very end, the ballerinas slip into the wings, vanishing like mist burned off by the morning sun, while their deserted cavaliers, left alone on the stage, sink down on one knee and gesture skyward in salute to...what? He never said.

* * *

Tamara Geva left him on the afternoon of April 29. He died at four the next morning. After a lifetime of movement, he was still at last.

I didn't expect to write anything quite like that in so compact a book, but I think it works. And now that I've finished writing my first brief life, I'm even more excited by the form than I expected to be. In fact, the last few weeks have actually been kind of wonderful, despite the fact that I had to put the rest of my own life on hold in order to finish on time.

Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat....

That's what Stephen Sondheim wrote in Sunday in the Park with George about what it feels like to paint. That's also what it feels like to sit at your desk for hours on end, immersed in the magical act of "making a hat where there never was a hat." Three months ago, All in the Dances didn't exist. Over the years I'd told dozens of people all about George Balanchine's life and work, but every time I had to start fresh. Now there's an inch-thick pile of paper on my kitchen table with a title page on top, the gateway to a world I made, and even though I'll be reviewing a Broadway play tomorrow morning, then writing my Washington Post column in the afternoon, part of me is still back in that world of shadows.

That's why I wanted to tell you now about how it felt--and how it feels. I want to enjoy it just a little while longer before I return to the world of daylight and deadlines.

Posted March 31, 2004 12:00 PM

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